"You Fool, it Exploded!"

20 years have passed since the targeted elimination of Yahya Ayash, a senior Hamas operative who topped Israel's Most Wanted list back in the day. Israel Defense presents new details about the Sisyphean intelligence-gathering operation and the malfunction that almost eliminated the elimination. Exclusive
"You Fool, it Exploded!"

A Support rally of Ayash (Photo: AP)

On January 5, 1996, in the middle of a telephone conversation with his father, Yahya Ayash (aka "The Engineer"), who topped the Most Wanted list of the Israeli security services back in the day, was eliminated. Ayash was located in a safe house in Beit-Lahiya, a town in the Gaza Strip, and ISA succeeded in tracking him following a prolonged manhunt that had begun in the Judea and Samaria district about four years previously and involved thousands of man-hours and the employment of an extensive range of intelligence-gathering and operational resources.

Current Member of Knesset Avi Dichter, who in those days served as Head of the ISA's southern sector, currently regards the targeted elimination of Ayash twenty years ago as "an operation against all odds". For this reason, more than anything else, the operation, which involved the remote detonation (from the air) of an explosive charge secreted in a cellular telephone, merits a retrospective study.

It was one of the first targeted eliminations of the 1990s. The elimination was the culmination of a highly complex, sophisticated, groundbreaking and unorthodox operation led by ISA and supported by the other security services. The Director of ISA in those days was Carmi Gilon (who a short while letter resigned his post, having assumed responsibility for the security fiasco at the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin). His predecessor in initiating the operation involving Yahya Ayash was the previous ISA Director, Yaakov Peri. Gilon was replaced by Ami Ayalon.

In those days, MK Avi Dichter served as Head of the ISA's southern sector, and Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon (who currently serves as Israel's Minister of Defense) served as Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate. Back then, Israeli military intelligence was an active and substantial partner in the intelligence-operational cycle, as was IAF.

Yahya Ayash, a native of the village of Rafat in the Samaria district, studied electrical engineering at Bir-Zeit University (hence the nickname "The Engineer"). He was a founding member of the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas, in the early 1990s.

Since 1992, Ayash was under ISA surveillance (pursuant to the prevention of a car bomb attack in Ramat-Efal, Ramat-Gan which he had prepared and launched). He was marked as the "engineer" who had initiated, planned and produced the suicide attacks and prepared the explosives for them. Between 1993 and 1994 he planned a series of terrorist attacks, from the first suicide attack in Mechola in 1993 to numerous attacks in Afula, Hadera, Beit-Lid, the No.5 bus attack on Diezengoff Street in Tel-Aviv and many other terrorist attacks. Since then, he became the most prominent, most wanted terrorist as far as the Israeli security agencies were concerned, but he managed to escape capture again and again.

Ayash realized that he was being targeted and established a system of supporters that enabled him to remain constantly on the move – it is estimated that he never spent more than one night in the same location. He was nearly captured on several occasions, but managed to escape. Subsequently, in order to make life difficult for his hunters and minimize the risk of being captured, Ayash relocated from the Judea and Samaria district to the Gaza Strip (probably hidden in a truck carrying agricultural produce).

As stated, the hunt for Ayash had begun as far back as 1992, but in October 1994, the suicide bombing attack on Diezengoff Street in Tel-Aviv (which was also perpetrated by Ayash) initiated the 'leap'. Pursuant to this severe attack, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the security agencies to step up their efforts to eliminate the perpetrator and stressed the importance and urgency of these efforts. In view of this directive, the efforts were, indeed, intensified and the mission assumed a different direction. All IDF troopers were thoroughly familiar with the photograph of Ayash, but he still managed to escape capture.

Even after relocating from the Judea and Samaria district to the Gaza Strip in early 1995, Ayash continued to prepare and launch terrorist attacks while strictly observing his personal security and changing his location continuously. Numerous Hamas supporters provided him with every assistance, logistics and hiding places. During that period, he continued to prepare explosive charges and send Hamas activists on suicide attacks in Israel. He became personally responsible for dozens of Israeli deaths and hundreds of injuries.

At some point, ISA decided to "follow the woman" and exploit a significant weakness that surfaced during the prolonged intelligence-gathering effort: Ayash's wife and child, who remained in the village in the Samaria district and with whom he continued to communicate by telephone.

Following a prolonged surveillance effort involving Ayash's wife and the other members of his family in the village in the Judea and Samaria district, ISA realized that the wife intended to relocate to the Gaza Strip so that she may be closer to her husband. ISA enabled this relocation and in March 1995 Ayash's wife was spotted in Beit-Lahiya.

MK and former ISA Director Avi Dichter admits that all of the efforts and intelligence-gathering resources invested by ISA and IDF – SigInt, HumInt and VisInt – failed to produce anything for months. Ayash seemed to have "disappeared from the Radar screen". At that point a decision was made to switch from passive intelligence-gathering to active tactics, in several ways.

The basic assumption was that Ayash was living and operating not far from where his wife was located – especially after it became known that she had given birth to their second child in late 1995. Accordingly, a highly-focused intelligence-gathering effort was initiated and aimed at the Beit-Lahiya area, in an attempt to identify anyone who may be associated with Ayash.

A painstaking, complex and sophisticated intelligence-gathering effort and a comprehensive charting of all of the databases plus various cross-sections of Hamas activists known to be residing in the area eventually led to the "Bingo" proclamation when the information pointed to a local Hamas operative named Osama Hamad. According to the information, he was previously acquainted with Ayash since the days they were both students at Bir-Zeit University.

Placing Hamad under surveillance led to the realization that Ayash called at Hamad's residence in Beit-Lahiya occasionally but fairly regularly, in order to speak to his father on the telephone and meet his wife and son. The SigInt effort also indicated that Ayash conducted a regular weekly telephone call with his father from Hamad's residence. This provided an operational anchoring point upon which the elimination operation was subsequently developed.

After the local supporter and point of reference were located, it was necessary to select the execution method and find the most effective way to reach the supporter. Dichter described it as "putting a life-saver float around him, trying to envelope him and getting as close as possible."

At this point ISA decided to "recruit" as the "life-saver float" a relative of Osama Hamad – Kamel Hamad, a prominent Gaza Strip contractor and businessman, who was involved in extensive activity in the Gaza Strip as well as inside Israel. Up to that moment, Kamel Hamad had never been associated with ISA, but once he was marked as an objective, the change in the course of his life was initiated and the clock of Ayash's life started ticking with both men completely unaware. ISA contacted Kamel Hamad and put in motion a script that every Hollywood producer and director would have been happy to adopt.

A Hollywood Script

Initially, ISA made Hamad understand that for the benefit of his continued freedom of movement around Israel and his business operations, he'd better be cooperative. In this context, he was asked to hire his relative Osama Hamad and subsequently provide him with a cellular telephone. Dichter says that initially the telephone was given to Hamad so that he could become accustomed to using it.

After a while of the telephone being used by Hamad and Hamad becoming accustomed to it while ISA was monitoring how it was being used, Kamel Hamad was asked to get the telephone back to ISA. At that time, the technical team of the operation planted 50 grams of explosive in that cellular telephone. In this context, Dichter stressed that from the outset the ISA made certain, throughout the planning stages, that the amount of explosive used would not harm any innocent parties, but only those actually located close to the telephone – which was intended to be close to the objective's ear and hurt only him. In this context, other operational ideas regarding the use of other equipment that could have harmed other parties were rejected. Dichter credits the operational idea to the technological specialists of ISA as well as to the fact that the effort was carried out through continuous synchronization and cooperation.

The Malfunction & the Dramatic Moment

Now all the Israeli security operatives could do was wait for the first opportunity to act. The first attempt was made in late December 1995. The landline telephone in Hamad's residence was intentionally disrupted so as to force Ayash to use Hamad's cellular telephone. Ayash's father had received Hamad's cellular phone number as an alternate number and Ayash received his father's call on the cellular telephone. At this point a dramatic moment developed: the ISA operator pressed the button that was intended to generate the electronic signal through an airborne platform, but the call went on uninterrupted. The explosive charge failed to detonate. The contractor-collaborator, who knew nothing of the critical role he was playing in the operation, was asked to obtain the telephone from Osama Hamad under the pretext of a technical inspection – which was a complex undertaking. "It was not a simple task receiving a cellular device which contained an explosive charge that could explode at any minute", stressed Dichter. The technical specialists diagnosed the source of the malfunction: a broken wire.

The cellular telephone was handed back to Osama Hamad and on January 5, 1996 another opportunity presented itself. Ayash arrived at Hamad's residence and once again the landline communication was disrupted and through a complex process the father was made to call his son on the cellular phone once again.

Ayash managed to complete one sentence and the ISA operators identified him as the speaker immediately. The operator pressed the button and this was followed by a moment of silence. The operator told Dichter, his superior: "We missed again" and Dichter replied: "No, you fool, it exploded!" Indeed, the explosive charge did what it was designed to do. Ayash's head exploded, and the rest is history.

It is important to stress that although this was an ISA operation, the actual elimination was the outcome of a combined operational-intelligence effort with IAF and the IDF Intelligence Directorate. Twenty years later, Dichter defined it as "an operation against all odds". He told us that after years and months of searching for Ayash, even back in 1995 "the general feeling was that the chances of success were very slim, but we were pinching pennies: the field operators provided the objective and the technological organs provided the operational idea. This was one of the advantages of a small organization like ISA, where everyone knows one another and we all work together."

"A Matter of Strategy rather than Tactics"

Following the targeted elimination, the Palestinian Authority detained and interrogated Osama Hamad and many members of the family of the unwitting collaborator Kamel Hamad in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the widow of Yahya Ayash blamed the Palestinian security services for allegedly providing Israel with information about Ayash that led to his elimination, and even claimed that after one of her last meetings with her husband, Palestinian security officers arrived at the apartment where the meeting had been held. These allegations were never verified and as far as anyone knows, Yasser Arafat never acceded to the Israeli demands for assistance in the spotting of Ayash.

The life of businessman Kamel Hamad, who was in Israeli territory during the actual elimination, changed. He was denounced as a traitor and collaborator by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that he had been manipulated unwittingly, and subsequently lost all of his property and wealth. He entered an ISA rehabilitation program and in the context of that program went to the USA, but his attempt at resettling there failed and he returned to Israel. A veteran Israeli security operative, who knew Hamad and maintained on-going working relations with him in the days when he was 'King' in the Gaza Strip, told us that a few years after the elimination he met him, quite by chance, at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat-Gan. He described a dejected and bitter individual who complained about the 'trick' ISA had played on him and about the price he had to pay, and went as far as claiming that assurances he had been given were not honored.

Tens of thousands of inhabitants of the Gaza Strip attended the funeral of Yahya Ayash that evolved into a show of strength by Hamas, which, quite naturally, pledged to stage revenge attacks. It is reasonable to assume that if Ayash had lived on, he would have continued to produce terrorist attacks so at least as far as the "price of the elimination" is concerned, whether the subsequent attacks were revenge attacks or planned attacks, the additional cost paid probably determined the outcome of the Israeli elections in 1996: the Israeli public said "No" to Shimon Peres and his vision of peace.

Ayash was replaced by Muhi A-Din Sharif, who was also eliminated in 1998. Ayash himself was commemorated by the Palestinian Authority in various ways – a street was named after him as was the Palestinian Authority compound in Ramallah. Since his death, Hamas pays tribute to his memory every year, and uses his character for various purposes. Incidentally, one of Ayash's two sons was arrested in early 2015 in the context of arrests made by Palestinian security authorities in the Judea and Samaria district.

Col. (res.) David Hacham, a consultant to IMOD on Arab affairs and one of the most knowledgeable experts on Hamas, served as a political consultant to the Israeli defense establishment on the Palestinian issue and monitored the negotiations regarding the implementation of the Oslo agreement. "The targeted elimination of Ayash, just like the suicide attacks, did not adversely affect the continuation of the process. About 3 months prior to the elimination, and despite the severe terrorist attacks by Hamas, the interim agreement was signed in Cairo and about two weeks after the elimination the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council were held," Hacham told us. Hacham noted that although following the elimination Ayash became a 'hero' on the Palestinian streets, gaining public exposure and fame he had never enjoyed in his lifetime, "the elimination of Ayash did not deter the Palestinian Authority from pressing on with their negotiations with us and the process and the negotiations continued, with the issue of how terrorism should be handled being raised in that context."

As far as the "price" question and the justification of the elimination are concerned, Dichter told us very emphatically: "counterterrorism is a matter of strategy rather than tactics. If you decide that this is the way then you should act at every opportunity, not just when it is convenient for you to act. It should be an on-going effort and you should act and strike all the time, keep taking the terrorist elements by surprise and keep them on their toes and under a constant threat, regularly – not just at random." Beyond that, Dichter stressed that Ayash was actually involved in the planning and preparation of additional terrorist attacks against Israelis.

David Hacham added that "targeted eliminations were and still are an important and essential measure in the counterterrorism effort, for undermining the terrorists' capabilities and as a deterrence tactic. In some cases they have an immediate effect on minimizing the number of terrorist attacks while in other cases they do not. Admittedly, in most cases new grass will grow, the terrorist attacks and terrorism generally will continue, but it is a tactic whose importance and effect on the terrorist organizations are substantial in the context of the cumulative process. Targeted eliminations certainly disrupt their agenda and activity."


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